The global order as we know it today was formed after a long period of religious attrition during the infamous Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant states.
The involved parties came to agree that no one can ultimately emerge victorious from a religious war and the economy cannot possibly thrive while religious extremists wage wars on each other. Against this backdrop, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, creating the initial structure of modern Europe, which later became the primary framework of the global order.
Today, the key principles of this treaty are being followed, such as opposing the violation of any state’s sovereignty or forcibly imposing a religion on a state in order to protect people from warring sects. In a context marked by the emergence of nationalism in individuals within certain geographical boundaries, we witnessed the first seeds of secularism through separating the state from the church, and the states’ right to choose their political and economic systems without any interference or harassment from external forces. In other words, preserving lives, protecting state borders, and restraining extremists are top priorities.
This international order had enemies from the outset, especially Russia that saw the treaty to only serve the interests of Western countries and shape the future as they want it to be. Despite that, Western powers succeeded in preserving, expanding, and spreading these policies. First, Great Britain was the main lever that contributed to the treaty’s protection. After the decline of its power, however, the United States took up the torch since World War II and until this very day. As a result, the global order is described as the American rather than the liberal order.
Today, however, this order is facing, for what seems to be the first time since its establishment, a real threat with the rise of China and its recent partnership with Iran. US President Joe Biden admitted he had been concerned for years about this Sino-Iranian partnership agreement. Biden’s concern mainly comes from China’s recent public defiance of the entrenched American order in the region. The Chinese foreign minister even stated that the international order was based on American rules.
What we are witnessing today is early signs of a clash that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned against, when he said that the biggest challenge for any American president is to avoid a military war with Beijing, all while limiting its influence and involving it in the global order that was designed by Europeans and Americans hundreds of years ago. China, on the other hand, is seeking to design its very own global order.
If we look at history, the story of the Nixon administration with China is a perfect example of how international conflicts are managed at high levels. Washington decided at the time to get closer to both China and the Soviet Union so that they would not join forces together against the US as that would inevitably harm its interests and curb its influence. When the US rapprochement with China made the Soviet Union feel isolated, pushing it to seek to establish a balanced relationship with the US. As a result, the world enjoyed, from the 1970s onward, a balanced, stable, war-free, and economically-prosperous era that paved the way for globalization.
Right now, however, we are witnessing a new global dynamic and a novel approach by the Biden administration. The US is changing its perception of and relationship with its traditional allies. The US is also reconsidering its bad relationship with Russia, which deteriorated even further after Biden called Putin “a killer,” and its thorny ties with China, especially after the American and Chinese foreign ministers publicly reprimanded each other.
How will the Biden administration deal with all these issues that keep the president up at night?
There is more than one factor at play vis-à-vis the US administration and its international and strategic vision. First, there is what President Biden represents as a firm believer in establishing an alliance with Europe and creating a free liberal order the solely empowers the US. However, left-wing parties specifically and the American public in general disapprove of the old foreign policy and want Biden to take revenge on Russia for interfering in the elections. Ergo, the president called Putin a murderer only to calm the angry mobs as it does not achieve any real political gains. If Biden were to succeed in doing things his way, we would definitely witness a confrontation with China.
Another factor at play within the Democratic Party and the US administration itself is the idea that American hegemony is over, and that new forces, most notably China, will rise to participate in bearing the burdens of the world. This means that the American guardianship is no longer sufficient and it is better to have Chinese guardianship helping in controlling the affairs of our world.
It is no secret that when great powers rise to the top, they impose their conditions and values on the world, and will not settle for just a small share of political influence and economic gains. Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed this idea in the past. In a way, this is a symbol of tearing up the old treaty signed 50 years ago by the Europeans without giving the Russians and the Chinese any say in it.
Is this a 500-year late revenge? Nobody knows the answer yet.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.